Hearing voices in the animal world

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 September, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 September, 2000, 12:00am

WHAT'S THAT YOUR pet tabby is trying to tell you as it caterwauls its way through the night? 'Feed me, feed me!' probably, but it could be so much more. The problem is that we humans don't have the mental wherewithal to decipher animals' signals. We scarcely even realise that, whether in gardens or wilderness, they are constantly 'talking', sometimes across species.

Australian professors Lesley Rogers and Gisela Kaplan, authorities on animal behaviour and specialists in neuroscience and social sciences respectively, say it's about time we learnt what animals are on about, because our survival depends partly on theirs.

'Only in the 20th century,' they write, 'have we truly begun to understand that the existence of animals and their well-being is tied to ours . . . The rate of extinction of species shows we are doing evil, and, ironically, in so many instances we are doing this while actually proclaiming our liking for animals.' It is certainly moralistic and perhaps simplistic, but valid nonetheless.

There remains the enormous problem of identifying meaning in what animals say, but this doesn't stop the authors - after outlining a definition of communication - from presenting an accessible, non-technical volume on what all that growling, twittering, snorting and feather-ruffling actually signifies. To human observers it's not always obvious that communication between animals has occurred - a galah may squawk and a gazelle perform balletic leaps, but such displays may be put on for their own sake and transmit no news. So the authors settle on changes in behaviour usually observed after an exchange of information as the key to establishing that there has been communication.

From this premise, they proceed to the meat of their study: a range of examples of correspondence in a host of species. While often startling, the book also leaves the reader warming to more unfluffy species, supporting the authors' subtext that all animals are worthy of our protection.

Electric fish, for example, have tail organs that transmit electrical pulses used for detecting prey and navigating, as well as social signalling: in some, the pulse frequency can indicate sex and social standing, and if two fish that send signals at similar frequencies meet, one or both will change frequency to avoid scrambling the other's broadcast.

Communication about being poisonous to a potential predator, write Rogers and Kaplan, is an example of inter-species signalling. When cornered, some animals try to force their foe to think twice about attacking by making itself look as big as possible. Toads, therefore, puff themselves up with air and stand high on their legs, while the Australian frill-necked lizard raises the ruff around its neck, sticks out its brightly coloured tongue, hisses . . . then runs.

This volume won't make you Dr Dolittle, but it will make you question some preconceptions. Communication, the authors believe, 'is one of the chief systems considered to distinguish humans from animals'. But when they cite experiments that prove dolphins and apes can follow complex commands or understand human language, the lines begin to get more than a little blurred.

Songs, Roars And Rituals:

Communication In Birds,

Mammals And Other Animals

by Lesley J Rogers and Gisela Kaplan

Harvard University Press $300